Although the owner’s restrictive declaration and the City’s special permit principally employ the dry nomenclature of approved permanent passageway, the physical reality is principally a splendid, renovated, historic, multistory atrium ringed with several levels of overlooking galleries and topped with a decorative glass-domed skylight. Entered from the west side of Fifth Avenue between West 55th and 56th Streets through an historic building façade, the Fifth Avenue atrium is unlike any other interior privately owned public space in the city simply because it is old. The space is neither large nor ostentatious. It employs muted colors of interior surface materials enlivened by the light cast through the skylight and the glass windows of its Fifth Avenue façade, designed in 1910 by French glassmaker René Lalique. Recently restored and rededicated, the windows depict delicately rendered flowers and intertwined vines. Stairs at the southwest corner of the atrium or an elevator at the northwest corner provide access for the best view, seen from the upper-level corridors from the inside out.
Unfortunately, at recent site visits, the scene described in the previous paragraph was unrecognizable, because the department store occupying adjacent space in this historic structure had taken over the atrium for its own purposes and filled it with displays for selling goods. A large decorative object hung above, making it impossible to perceive that this space was, indeed, a skylit atrium. The floor was so crowded with salespersons, customers, and display counters that it was difficult to make way forward toward the office lobby further west along the so-called “clear path” of the approved permanent passageway. On the second floor next to the Lalique windows along Fifth Avenue, tables and chairs occupied by persons eating a served lunch made a close-up view of the skillful design unattainable. Legal instruments governing this space expressly prohibit retail sales activity in the atrium, and no other record of City approval for this commercial takeover has been found.
The provision of public space here is one aspect of a complex historic preservation effort. Two buildings were designated landmarks by the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission: 712 Fifth Avenue and 714 Fifth Avenue. 712 Fifth Avenue was previously known as the Rizzoli Building and before that the 712 Fifth Avenue Building. Designed by Albert S. Gottlieb in 1908-1909, it accommodated commercial uses even as its five-story limestone façade matched the then-residential context of the neighborhood. 714 Fifth Avenue, originally built in 1871 but redone in 1907-1908 by Woodruff Leeming, was known as the Coty Building after the French purveyor of perfumes, Francois Coty, who leased the building in 1910. The two buildings have been partially preserved and restored for use as a department store, and an office skyscraper has been constructed behind and above the buildings to the west.
If operated correctly, the atrium space may be fruitfully compared with the privately owned public space at the nearby New York Palace Hotel. There, the outdoor courtyard and much of the surrounding Villard Houses were retained and restored, even as the new hotel arose behind and above the historic structures. Although such hybrid preservation efforts disturb some advocates of historic preservation, they enjoy the support of others who believe that a balance between development and preservation is politically and economically essential in modern cities. Another public space, a tiny building entrance recess area, is located in front of the office lobby entrance west of Fifth Avenue on West 56th Street.